Past & Present – Chapter Twelve: Past and Present

After getting sidetracked by numerous other SMK related projects, I can continue posting this story.

****

His arms slipped around her, pulling her tighter against him, his hands clamping with possessive rapture against her lower back as the attraction they had both striven to suppress finally ignited. Completely and helplessly lost in the hedonistic sensations he inflamed within her, Margaret’s arms slithered compulsively about his neck, her questing fingers drifting into the black layers of his hair with absent-minded abandon, every part of her responding to him, every feeling centred on his mouth that returned again and again to hers with growing hunger. The strength of feeling pulsating through her was a revelation, an incredible milestone along this journey she had chosen to take – a point frozen in time that made the world around them shift like the altering patterns of a kaleidoscope. His fingertips were like firebrands as they began to roam across her back, finding and locating the path of her spine, causing her to instinctively arch towards him in a haze of dizziness and delight. She was falling, weightlessly falling, her mind spinning like a top…and he was falling too, holding her so closely, cherishing and protecting her from the inevitable collision with the ground.

At length they drew apart and she was no longer falling, her feet on the ground, the stunned realisation of what had just passed between them entangled in their eyes. Their shallow breath blurred into a hot, invisible cloud. She didn’t dare speak. Talking would only break the amazing communication between them and she wasn’t ready to relinquish that. Not so soon, not when they could say so much to each other in silence, with the touch of their hands, with the softest brush of their lips. The sparks of unconcealed emotion seemed to glisten all around them, as resplendent as the stars strewn like silver glitter across the eternal sweep of sky.

As if he understood her thoughts, he wordlessly pulled her head gently against him so that it came to nestle just below his shoulder where she could feel the tumultuous vibrations of his heart. Her palms lay flat against his shirt, tentatively stroking, her eyes closing as she nuzzled further, wanting to cleave herself to him, to remain that way forever. He dropped a kiss on top of her hair, his fingers moving freely over the thin material of her jacket, creating crazy patterns across her back, restless and unceasing as though compelled to touch her. She remained as she was for as long as she could stand the assault of his fingers before lifting her head to his once more…

“What are you thinking of, Miss Hale?” he murmured in his deepest, most amusedly mocking tones as he finally pulled back from her softly enticing kiss. “Out here in the middle of the street, in front of anyone who happens to wander by.”

She smiled up at him, not insensitive to the seductive timbre that swept like molten fire through his voice. The abandonment of the moment, the final triumph of her heart over the ever-restrained preaching of her head, was overwhelming. When she had kissed him it had been like lifting the floodgates, making it impossible to renounce the tender fusion of their lips.

“I don’t care what anyone else thinks,” she replied, her voice so sure and resolute, her index finger fluttering up to trace the outline of his lips, only to find it captured by his hand as he placed the most vehement kiss upon its very sensitised tip. Her whole body shivered with pleasure.

“That sounds like something I would say,” he said with a soft, throaty laugh. As he tipped his head slightly to one side, his piercing gaze riveted upon her, he shook his head as if in complete wonder. “You’re so beautiful. You take my breath away.”

Modesty lowered her eyes from his, only to find his hands framing her face as he raised it again, his eyes searching earnestly for hers.

“You don’t even realise it do you?” he murmured incredulously, lowering his mouth to hers as though to seal his point, the pressure increasing, the sounds of the street fading into oblivion as he wove his magic around her. When he pulled away her lips felt bee-stung, still craving the incredible touch of his. “We can’t stand here all night,” he said softly.

“I know.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I just want to be with you. Nothing else matters.”

“Really?” He stared at her in breathless wonder, his eyes delving, searching, all-encompassing.

“Yes.”

His smile melted, his eyes burning intensely into hers, the shutters that haunted their blue depths lifting to reveal the open vulnerability that lay just beneath the surface. Margaret’s eyes pricked with tears to see it, to read the pain and sorrow that lingered there. She fought to withhold those tears, not wanting him to see, fearing his concern that he might have somehow upset her. But it didn’t stop her from wanting to reach out to his soul, to ask him again why he locked himself away. Yet she wouldn’t question him, not tonight. It was too perfect. She would wait, bide her time until she knew that he would talk to her without any impediments between them.

***

I just want to be with you. Nothing else matters.

He couldn’t believe that she’d said it, that her sentiments seemed to be running along a parallel line to his. In response to her words his grip upon her tightened. He wanted to treasure her, to hold onto her without having to ever let go. They had got this far – after all the arguments and bitterness, they had got to this point in time, to this unbelievable moment. He had tasted the future in her kiss, the future that could so easily be his. Never in his life, when he’d kissed other women, had it been like this – so utterly right it was almost unnerving.

“I think we’ll forget about Blues,” he said. “We’d never be able to talk above the noise.”

Margaret laughed. “Does that mean you want to hear what I have to say?” she teased, her eyes spankled with mischief. She leaned back against the net of his arms that linked at her lower back, implicitly trusting him not to let her topple backwards.

“I always want to hear what you have to say.”

“Not always,” she said, looking disbelieving. “I know I’ve been quite rude to you.”

“Challenging,” he corrected, pushing aside thoughts of the phrase she had used when she’d so eloquently summed him up as despicable. At least she didn’t think that now. Somehow, some way, he had managed to redeem himself in her eyes.

“Cantankerous?” she laughed.

“Provoking,” he countered, playfully. He threw her a lopsided smile. “I never knew whether to shake you or kiss you.”

“Really?”

“More than you’ll ever know.”

The impishness vanished in an instant, the young coquette disappearing only to be replaced by an infinitely sensual young woman. She moved forward, bringing her soft, curvaceous body flush against his, her arms once more twining about his neck, her fingers tantalising him as they wandered luxuriantly into his hair, trailing over the sensitive skin at back of his neck in the process. “Kiss me now,” she whispered with quiet passion. “Please. Kiss me now.”

He couldn’t resist her, plunging his mouth down upon hers, tasting her, wanting her, loving her.

She sighed contentedly. “I feel like I’m on top of the world.”

“Come with me,” he said when he at last pulled away, an idea coming to him, determined to take her somewhere more private, where they could just cocoon themselves without the prying eyes of other people passing by upon them.

“Where are we going?” She sounded dazed, confused.

He kissed the tip of her nose lightly, grasping her hand as he did so. “To the top of the world – or as close as we can get to it.”

***

There was no way that he could take her back to the flat with the threat of his mother or Fran bursting in upon them at any minute, but he could take her to another room in the hotel which he knew for a fact wouldn’t be in use. However, whether she would actually be prepared to venture into that room was another matter entirely, bearing in mind the connotations of it.

Never before had he felt the need to try and sneak someone into the hotel without being seen, the two of them giggling like children as they threw aside their cares and tip-toed through reception and darted towards the lift, dodging the sight of Helena who had her back turned as she spoke to someone on the phone. God knows what anyone would think if they saw them together – if they saw him with his furtive looks, behaving completely out of character, like a schoolboy flush with excitement in trying to sneak his first girlfriend back to his room for – as his mother had so quaintly termed it – some canoodling.

“I don’t think I can face your mother tonight,” Margaret said, some of that confidence leeching from her as they stood side by side in the lift, hands clasped between them.

He raised her hand to his lips. “I wouldn’t put you through that sort of interrogation so don’t worry.”

“Where are we going then?”

“To the fourth floor. It’s as close to the top of the world as you’ll get tonight seeing as the flat is out of the question.” He smiled then, his eyes holding fast to hers. “I guarantee that the view over Milton is just as good as from the flat though.”

“The fourth floor? Aren’t all the rooms already occupied by guests?”

“Not all of them.”

He saw then the dawning realisation spread across her face, bringing with it an engaging bloom of colour to her cheeks.

He sensed her hesitance immediately. “I suppose you’re thinking that the Honeymoon Suite is a bit forward?”

She shrugged, desperate to appear nonchalant but he could tell she was frantically trying to work out what he had in mind. “Don’t worry, Margaret. Just think of it as another room in the hotel – one where we won’t be disturbed.”

“How are you planning to get in? The master key is in reception with Helena.”

To her question he pulled out a set of keys jangling on the loop of a key ring that was embellished with the name of the hotel. He saw the recognition on her face, even before she spoke.

“My father’s key ring is the same as that.”

“I know. I gave it to him.” He held a key out to her, separating it from the others. “As the owner of this hotel, I tend to carry around a master key in case I ever need it.”

“Do you need it often?”

“Very occasionally.”

“For excursions like this?” The devilment came back into play again, fully restored as she began to relax a little.

He fixed his eyes upon her, tainting the light-heartedness with sudden seriousness. “Never for this. No.”

“Not even with other girlfriends?”

“Never.”

The lift eased to a halt and the door slid open.

The corridor was hushed, completely deserted. The only sound was of their muffled footsteps against the carpet as they made their way to their destination. John put the key in the lock and turned it, releasing the mechanism so that the door opened up to them. He groped for the light switch just to the side of the doorway, illuminating the room beyond, before turning to Margaret, his hand outstretched to lead her inside.

“It’s lovely.”

She stood there beside him, transfixed. Inevitably, the eye was drawn towards the four poster which was the focal point of the entire room with its ivory linen and deep navy bedspread smoothed perfectly taut across its surface. The walls were pale, warmed by the barest hint of cream, elegantly reflecting the glow of the chandelier hanging from the centre of a single plaster rose in the middle of the ceiling. A chaise lounge sat under one window, beckoning to be laid upon. The functional presence of wardrobes, of a chest of drawers, seemed to blend into the room itself, to become a part of the restful fantasy whose overwhelming colour scheme reflected the demure and elegant beauty of a traditional wedding dress.

“Come and look at the view,” he said, propelling her from the spot on which she was rooted.

Obediently she let him lead her over to the window from which the curtains were pulled back to reveal the twinkling lights of Milton and the flickering radiance of those coming from the homes set back in the distance, further towards the countryside. For the first time Margaret was able to see the shadowed shapes of the chimneys that still remained from the time when the mills had been working and the town had thrived in the heyday of the cotton industry. Below them the echo from the streets was muted, a suggestion of life effervescing beyond the boundaries of their elevated perch. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered except the two of them, bound together in their own special reality.

“Does the view inspire you?” Margaret asked reflectively, her eyes still focussed on the world beyond.

He smiled, letting himself speak what he was thinking, letting the dice fall as it may. “The only thing that inspires me is you.”

In silence she turned towards him, a look of such enchantment on her face that his breath left him and made his heart beat to a more rapid pitch. Without a second’s hesitation they gravitated into each other’s arms and she wrapped herself around him, moulded herself to him, her lips parted in expectation.

With a tenderness that was as restrained as it was passionate he kissed her.

***
The perilous call of his mobile cut through the air like a rapier, jarring the perfect moment in which they were encompassed. His instinct was to ignore it, to let it ring, but it just kept going on and on, screaming like a banshee, piercing the stillness of the room.

He groaned, not wanting to have to pull himself away from her, even though he sensed her body stilling in his arms, her own slackening from where they had enclosed his neck, drifting down onto his shirt.

“It might be important,” she said, meeting his eyes, her own despondency clearly etched. “You can’t ignore it.”

Reluctantly they broke apart and John fished in his pocket for the phone, answering its impatient call. “Yes?” The curtness of his tone bespoke of his irritation. He couldn’t help it; the fragile perfection of the evening had been effectively destroyed by this one infuriating interruption.

It was a complete shock when he heard his mother’s voice, sombre and weary, on the other end of the line. “I don’t know where you are, John, but I’m at the hospital with Fran. Steven’s here. He’s been in a car accident.”

John’s entire body tensed. The warmth of the room suddenly disappeared as though smothered by frost. “Is he all right?”

“We don’t know. They’re looking at him now.”

“How’s Fran?”

“You know your sister.”

It was enough. He understood precisely what his mother meant. Fran was Fran. She would be hysterical, feeling victimised by the shadow of unmitigated gloom being cast in her direction.

“Are you still with Margaret?” He heard her tone tighten at the mention of Margaret’s name.

“Yes.” His gaze darted towards Margaret who stood silently staring out onto the town, waiting for him to finish, her hands splaying out to smooth the fabric of her dress as if to appear more presentable, even though she already was. Only her jacket lay where he’d hurled it thoughtlessly, along with her handbag, onto the chaise lounge when he’d eased it from her shoulders.

“I was hoping you could come to the hospital,” his mother said.

“Of course. I’ll come now.”

“I’m sure Margaret will understand when you explain.”

He finished the call, knowing where his priorities lay, however much he wished they didn’t. He turned back to Margaret, crossing over to the window to put his hands on her shoulders, gently kneading the bare skin not covered by the material of her dress.

“What’s happened?” she asked, looking up into his face with concern.

“Steven’s been involved in an accident. He’s in A&E.”

Horror seeped across Margaret’s expression, compassion quickly following in its stead. “Your poor sister. Is she all right?”

“I doubt it. I’ve got to go to the hospital.”

“Of course. She’ll need you.”

Not as much as I need you, he thought ruefully. “Do you mind if I drop you home on the way?”

She put her hand to his face, stroking it across his cheek with such gentle understanding that his heart ached at the very idea of having to leave her. “You need to be with Fran. I understand that.”

He nodded wryly, knowing that she was right yet still loath to break the connection between them, only too aware that after he’d taken Margaret home it would be like driving headlong into hell. He hated hospitals and always had done and would do practically anything to avoid the inevitable if he thought he could get away with not having to step foot in one.

“I enjoyed tonight – being with you,” he said, bringing her closer, holding her in his arms, revelling in the warmth that seemed to radiate from her body whenever she was near to him. “I’m sorry it had to end in this way.”

She smiled up at him with tender affection, doing her utmost to keep her disappointment hidden. “Things happen,” she replied philosophically. She smiled ruefully. “That’s the trouble with being on top of the world, I suppose. There’s always a chance that you might fall off.”

He kissed her softly, skimming her lips with the faintest caress, before going to gather up her jacket and bag and pass them to her. They descended the guest stairs together, both of them in their hearts well aware of how it might look if they were seen together, but having no option but to take the chance. As it was, Helena wasn’t around, her shift completed, and the night porter was whistling to himself in the office beyond reception. Although neither one of them said anything, neither could believe that they had managed to get out of the hotel completely unnoticed by anyone.

They didn’t say a word to each other until John drew the car to a halt just outside the house in Winchester Way. Then he unlatched their seat belts and enfolded her against him, kissing her hair, her forehead and finally her lips with the bitter regret of having to leave.

“Thank you for tonight,” Margaret said, moving back and creating some distance between them. She put her fingers on the door handle and let it snap open.

“I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” John replied. “As soon as I can.”

He waited until she went indoors and then started up the car, heading it in the direction of the hospital.

***
As he walked purposefully through the entrance of Milton Hospital for the first time in ten years, his sights fixing on the signs leading to A&E, he could almost immediately feel the tension beginning to seize his muscles, that peculiar smell he could only ever associate with hospitals filling his lungs almost to the point of suffocating him.

It didn’t help that nothing had changed. The corridor he walked, his shoes echoing against the hard surface, was still the drear, sterile path he’d traced before, peppered by doors that led off to offices or other wards. The memories came rushing back, those ever-present ghosts he fought so hard to contain during every waking second returning to taunt his mind, to drag him back into the maelstrom of yesteryear.

He suddenly caught sight of his sister standing alone further along the corridor, limply hunched against the wall beside the coffee machine, a plastic cup of forgotten liquid in her hand. Her bloodshot eyes and languid stance relayed her anguish and fear that history was about to make her lose someone else she was close to just as she had so many years ago.

“Oh John, they’ve got him hooked up to all these monitors!” she cried as soon as she saw him, hearing his step. “It’s so frightening to see him like that!”

She began to sob, the contents of her cup beginning to spill as her body convulsed. John moved to rescue the cup from her hand and put it on top of the machine where it would be safe. He gave her a hug, tried to comfort her, to tell her it would be all right.

“It wasn’t before was it?” she retorted, harking back to that other time when their father had lain so still and pale, tubes and machines all around him, a shell of the man they had both idolised so much. “What if it isn’t okay? What if Steven dies? What if he dies, John? Like Father.” The hysteria came, the tears streaming down her cheeks and onto his shirt, each one like a tiny needle against the bare skin beneath.

“Come and sit down.” He led her to a row of five chairs, plastic and functional, not made for comfort at all, and helped her into one, sitting down next to her, feeling cold inside, his heart like ice. He wanted to get out, to leave this place. He could feel it crushing him, killing him bit by bit…

“Where’s Mother?” he asked, attempting to behave rationally, to help her if he could – he who couldn’t even help himself, let alone talk about his own feelings to the one person he needed to.

“She’s giving the clerk on reception Steven’s parents’ details so that they can contact them. What if he dies before they get here?”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, Fran.”

She shot him a doubting look, so far advanced along her morbid path that to consider anything else was impossible. “You don’t know that! How can you know that? He was covered in blood. He crashed the car into a lamp-post, John! He shouldn’t even have been driving! They said they were doing everything they could, but what if it’s not enough? What will I do if he dies?”

“Oh Fran, don’t do this to yourself,” he sighed, at a loss to know what to say, what to do to make it better. Could he help her at all, he wondered? She was frightened, as scared and uncertain of the future as she must have been all those years ago. She feared a repeat of history, the withering blow of fate. John tightened his arm around her shoulders, hugging her against him in silence as they waited for someone to come out to speak to them.

Just as they had waited ten years before for news of their father.

 

 

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